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Meat in Crisis by Harry Mather, Vegan Views 87 (Winter 2000/01)

The habit of eating meat may become the big problem in the prosperous nations at the start of the new century. In the Western world, meat is looked on as the mainstay of a healthy diet, the chief item of nutrition. Even if we could boast of 10% vegetarians in Britain, that still means that 90% still believe they need meat to live and think nothing of having three meat meals a day although a couple of centuries ago ordinary people could not afford it and yet could do harder physical work than is done today.

With the development of intensive agriculture and the pressure to increase production and maintain low prices, domestic animals no longer live natural lives grazing and foraging for food, but are kept in artificial conditions and are treated with hormones and antibiotics as a matter of routine. It follows that meat production is far from what it was, say, 50 years ago and it is no coincidence that food poisoning scares have increased not only in numbers but also in their severity.

The most notable scare came in Britain in 1986, when some cows behaved in a peculiar way and seemed to be unable to co-ordinate their movements. Post mortem examinations showed that the brains of the sick animals had holes like a sponge and the disease was named Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, now more popularly known as mad cow disease. Eventually the causative agent was said to be neither a bacterium nor a virus but to be a simple protein named a prion, which had mutated to a misshapen form. This could not be detected whilst the animal was still alive, making it very difficult to control the disease. This new disease was similar to scrapie which had long been known as an infection in sheep without giving cause for serious concern. Since parts of dead sheep had been included in the meal given to cattle, it was supposed that the disease had been passed on to cattle, but if it had passed from sheep to cattle could it then pass on to humans eating beef? To avoid panic, it was confidently asserted that the disease could not be transferred to humans, although there was no evidence to back this. This assertion was still maintained even when it became apparent that other animals were suffering similar severe symptoms. The economic catastrophe to be endured if large numbers of cattle could no longer be sold was too horrible to be contemplated. Cats, deer and other animals were found to have died from a Spongiform Encephalopathy.

It is said that in Sweden in 1986, a man took his cat to the vet because it kept on biting its tail. The vet examined what the cat had been eating and found its food contained meat from dead dogs and cats. Swedish journalists thought that this would be of interests to colleagues at the BBC (presumably in the context of the BSE crisis). The latter however considered that if they broadcast this news, endless anxious callers would jam the telephone lines at the BBC, making them most unpopular, and the news never went out.

So humans continued to be at risk until it became impossible to hide the fact that young people were becoming severely ill with a brain disease that had previously only been seen in old people - Jakob Creutzfeld Disease (CJD) a brain disease similar to BSE. A similar brain disease (kuru) is known among cannibals who eat the brains of their enemies. This would suggest that humans are not meant to eat each other. A fact all today will agree to be obvious, but it should also have been obvious that turning herbivores into to carnivores would be dangerous.

Now 80 young people have suffered agonising deaths from this new variant CJD. Since the incubation period for the disease may be as long as ten to 20 years, the eventual number of victims cannot be calculated.

Finally, there had to be massive killing of cattle at a cost of billions of pounds to prevent the spread of the disease and cattle destined for human consumption had to have brain and spinal tissues carefully removed. The economic problem was compounded when other Europeans (and also USA) banned all imports of British Beef. British consumers also panicked initially and avoided beef, but when supermarkets cut prices by half customers, defying logic, returned and sales of beef have gradually returned to pre-crisis level.

The BSE crisis has however had one long term consequence, the public are more mistrustful of assurances from the government and even from scientists about food safety and no longer rely on their truthfulness. This has also led to widespread suspicion about the safety of Genetically Modified Foods. It is realised that if there are possible grave consequences, however remote they may be, it might be better to err on the side of caution.

When in 2000, Britain, after much argument, managed to persuade the European Commission that its beef was safe for export, France and Germany still felt that they should apply the precautionary principle and they continued to refuse imports of British beef. Even if they allowed imports to come in, most consumers would also have played safe and shunned British beef. One 3-star French chef has declared that he has taken meat off his menu altogether and says it is many years since he ate meat himself. He finds more inspiration among the vegetables.

When two deaths attributable to new variant CJD were found in France, stricter controls were imposed, such as banning beef on the bone, and the use of feedstuffs containing animal products. They also imposed stricter checks on imports from countries that claimed to be free of BSE and suggested that countries claiming to be free of BSE had simply not been looking hard enough. They persuaded the European Commission to insist that member states should apply stricter controls and also ban the use of animal products in feedstuffs.

As a result, cases of BSE have now been found in Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Sweden and consumers are beginning to be concerned. Even Austria which had been priding itself that the widespread organic agriculture had made it BSE free was found to have a case of the disease. Consumers in these countries have lost confidence in beef and are angry that those who should be taking care of the safety of food are more concerned about the economic consequences. That is why two German cabinet ministers had to resign in disgrace, because they had not reacted promptly to reports of contamination.

France has launched a huge programme to test all cattle over 30 months old at slaughter, checking for signs of BSE and this will involve about 20,000 animals a week. This may allay fears about the safety of beef, but what about meat products which may contain imported meatstuff. This is what led France to insist on stricter standards from other European countries. Britain does make checks at ports on food imports, but it is only possible to carry out random checks. Even so, fraudulent practices are uncovered. Documents are falsified to avoid suspicion. Crates labelled as vegetables have been found to contain much meat and in one case, there were even carcasses of several cooked and frozen monkeys. The capacity of some people to put profit before principle can be beyond belief.

In France someone was found to have supplied condemned meat to a supermarket chain on a huge scale, leading to a panic withdrawal of stock from the shelves.

In Britain also, a huge racket was uncovered and great quantities of condemned meats were found being supplied to wholesalers. It would appear that it is impossible to keep a check on all the ways in which foodstuffs which are thought to be unhealthy can yet find their way into consumption. An animal found unfit for consumption is a blow to the farmer and there are middlemen who are willing to take advantage of this.

The great number of animals passing through a slaughterhouse and the need for speed and efficiency make it difficult for inspectors to be sure that the nervous tissues that have to be removed to avoid BSE contamination have been efficiently removed. One inspector stated that he was regularly threatened with dire consequences if he rejected any product and he did not treat this threat as a harmless joke. Confidence in beef and beef products has been greatly shaken in Europe. It could be that this is a phase from which consumers will recover as they see their governments taking remedial action and they will also switch to other animal products. But are other animals safe to eat?

There is a fear that BSE may be transferred to sheep. There was a scare in Belgium in 2000 when chicken were found to be highly toxic, believed to have been due to contaminated feed and chickens are widely the cause of salmonella poisoning in humans with many severe reactions and some deaths each year. Pigs suffered an outbreak of swine fever in East Anglia when wholesale slaughter had to be undertaken to check the spread of the disease. Fishing restrictions have to be imposed because of dwindling stocks. This has led to factory farming of fish, kept in cages by the coast, but these confined conditions lead to the spread of diseases which have to be countered by administering antibiotics which appear in the fishes on sale.

Doubts have also spread to blood transfusions. Could the undetectable cause of BSE be lurking in the blood of beef eaters? France decided to refuse blood from people who visited UK during the critical infective years.

There is indeed a crisis and the next few years may well lead to people being more careful about what they eat.

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Cross-reference: BSE/CJD